A while ago I posted an article on CraveOnline in which I said that I didn't think microtransactions in retail games were that bad. My article was in response to a piece penned by Crave's Joey Davidson, who argued that they had "killed a part of gaming". I argued that as long as microtransactions remained unobtrusive, I didn't find them to be a cause for concern. With the benefit of hindsight, I can now see how wrong I was.
Accelerating to Victory
Sitting down to play Forza Motorsport 5 the other night I was disgusted by how much these microtransactions had been pushed to the forefront of the experience. Yes, they were a thing in Forza Motorsport 4 and Forza Horizon, but in neither of those games did I find myself barraged by suggestions to fork over my money in an effort to "enhance" my experience. In Forza 5, the "Token" value of a car sits directly beneath its in-game Credit value. Tokens are purchasable with real money, and if you look at a car that you don't have enough Credits to purchase, the game taps you on the shoulder and says "Hey, you don't have to do all that hard 'gameplay' stuff if you want to get this—just enter in your credit card details".
Tapping the 'Y' button during the menu brings up "Accelerators", a.k.a. "More Stuff You Can Buy With Real Cash to Ensure You Don't Have to Put Any Effort Into the Game". These Accelerators include a double XP boost, essentially a fast-track system for people willing to fork out money in order to ruin the challenge of the game for themselves, so whereas levels in games usually indicate the quality of the player and their effort put into the game, in Forza 5 they now can just as easily prove how much of the players' income has been put into the game. The awful economy of the game makes it feel soulless, and considering it was pushed as the biggest exclusive launch title for the Xbox One, it's a worrying sign of things to come for the future of console gaming.
A Free-to-Play Economy with a Retail Price Tag
In an interview with Eurogamer, Forza developer Turn 10's creative director Don Greenawalt tried to explain the reasoning behind introducing such a wide array of microtransactions in a retail game. "If you look at free-to-play games they usually have things called paywalls, where you're slowly wearing something down and the only way to get around it is to pay," he said. "That's not what we implemented in Forza Motorsport 4 and that wasn't our goal in Forza 5 either. We don't have paywalls. We have acceleration."
Greenawalt is right in saying that Forza 5 doesn't have F2P paywalls, but in no way should that excuse the fact that everything in his retail game has a price tag. I believe that microtransactions are forgivable in retail releases when they offer some kind of bonus content that doesn't directly impact the rest of the game, but when the satisfying grind to unlock the best cars and even the leveling system is nullified because of them, then that's not okay. Free-to-play games require microtransactions to make a profit, but developers of retail games put them in place to make a larger profit. We all know how it works, and there are strong arguments both for and against their inclusion, but no matter which side of the fence you sit on it's inarguable that if the gaming industry goes down the route Forza 5 has taken, it'd be a much duller place.
Is This The Future?
Turn 10 have announced that they are working on fixing the game's broken economy by balancing the Credit and Token prices of each car so that they're more in line with each other, and that's certainly a step in the right direction. However, this still doesn't detract from the fact that it kills a part of the Forza experience that was always intrinsic to the series' success - hopping online and showing off your car to your friends. In Forza Motorsport 2, if you were in a lobby with someone who had an awesome, top-of-the-range customised car, you knew that it was because they had earned it. In Forza 5, the thrill of racing against or owning an awesome car is extinguished due to each vehicle being easily purchasable, and that the current imbalance between the prices of the cars when bought with Credits and the price of them when bought with Tokens means that many have simply plumped up the real cash out of pure laziness.
And that's how microtransactions find a market—laziness. We all want the good cars, but there should be a challenge required in order to unlock them. Microtransactions strip away this challenge for those who neither have the time nor the patience, but in doing so they take away a large part of what makes the game great. Unfortunately, the extent in which microtransactions are forced down the players' throats in Forza 5 means that there will likely be many who have a little cash to blow will be enticed into doing so. This encourages this behaviour to then be repeated.
I believe that Forza 5's economy is an attempt to test the water to see how far we will go to obtain cool shit with minimal effort. It's had its detractors, but if it proves to be a financial success it could be a sign of things to come in this new console generation.